Kids call it tagging. To most adults, it is nothing but ugly, hostile graffiti, as unavoidable as a scream. It is everywhere in the American city.
A few weeks ago, when that American kid, that white middle-class kid was found guilty of spray-painting some buildings and cars in Singapore, I got to thinking about the scrawl, the swirl of signatures I see all around me in San Francisco.
Most of it is ugly. Sometimes one comes upon an elegant hand, a delicacy that could belong in a medieval manuscript. In any case, the writing is insistent -- as insistent and as rude as rap from a boom box. The graffiti announce in big, black letters or day-glow colors: I AM HERE! THIS IS MY TURF! BEWARE OF DOG! I think of it as the boast of the male. Of the adolescent. Though recently here in San Francisco a 25-year-old art instructor was caught in the act.
Don't we also think of tagging as belonging to the inner city? A few weeks ago, people in the pretty Bay Area suburb of San Anselmo started seeing the writing on the wall. Meetings were held; neighborhood surveillance teams were organized. If there is nothing else to learn from the white, middle-class American kid in Singapore it is that tagging comes in all colors.
Whatever else it is, this is lettering on public display, far different from the dismal scrawlings on a public toilet. This is script as stylized as the uniform of teen urban life -- the bandanna, the baseball hat worn backward, the Raiders football jacket.
Put your initials on buses and trucks; put them on the walls of schools and churches --nothing is sacred; paint over the pious street murals; paint on street signs and freeway signs, where everyone has to look, whether they want to or not; put it on their houses. Put your name in big bad letters, announce yourself to the city that is otherwise oblivious of you.
Some kids talk about tagging as though it confers some sort of immortality or at least the brief Andy Warhol kind of fame. On the other hand, a friend of mine works with kids -- troubled kids, you and I would call them. Kids who have never been hugged, my friend would correct. My friend says to me, "Most people have no idea how lonely kids are in this country." She is talking, I think, not only about the kids with crack mamas who live in the projects but kids of suburban divorce who need to spray their names on the side of a mall.
Now, many Americans say they have had it with kids! Polls indicate that large numbers agreed with the Singapore judge who sentenced that American brat to be flogged. But in all the debate over flogging, who bothered to wonder why an American middle-class kid should be spray-painting cars in Singapore?
Tagging is mostly a language of the young meant for other young eyes. It is like the sign language, the occult and crooked finger lettering that gangs like the Crips and the Bloods use to distinguish among themselves.
To adult eyes, the lettering remains a mystery. Much of the scrawl is just scrawl. Indecipherable. Is this English at all? Are the kids even using a recognizable alphabet? Here, it seems to me, is the great irony of these walls: American kids are writing all around us. We see their scrawls every day. We hate their scrawls. We wish they'd go away. But we don't know what they are saying. It is like someone is screaming to us and we can't make out a word that's being said.
Richard Rodriguez, author of "Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father," wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.